United Gets Judge to Ground Nigerian Pilot’s Bias Claim

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By Porter Wells

A federal judge showed a former Continental Airlines pilot to the courthouse door March 12 when he couldn’t counter the airline’s evidence that he was fired because of under-performance and not because of his race or national origin.

Pilot Isaac Agbaniyaka’s refusal to complete a fitness for duty exam provided Continental with a “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” to fire him, said Judge William Martini of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

Continental Airlines became United Airlines in 2012 after merging with United’s parent company. United operates 1,220 aircraft and completes 4,550 daily flights, according to the Bloomberg Terminal. United raked in $37.9 billion in revenue in 2016 and has ordered a variety of fuel-efficient aircraft to update its aging fleet, also according to the Bloomberg Terminal.

Agbaniyaka, born in Nigeria, worked for Continental from 2001 to 2011. Continental fired him after placing him on a remedial assessment plan and ordering the fitness for duty exam.

He refused to complete the exam and sued Continental under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, claiming disparate treatment, a hostile working environment, and retaliation. United eventually picked up defense of the case.

But Agbaniyaka was unable to establish issues sufficient to proceed to trial, Martini said.

United produced years of evidence of Agbaniyaka’s poor testing scores as well as the incomplete fitness exam as justification for terminating him. Agbaniyaka produced only his own perceptions of his flight performance.

“Such personal beliefs are no substitute for evidence and, in fact, are irrelevant,” Martini said in dismissing the case.

Agbaniyaka also failed to establish a threshold argument that he was treated differently from similarly situated employees. He provided names of other employees but nothing on performance standards or supervisory conditions, Martini said. The dearth of information meant there was simply no disputed issue for trial, Martini said.

Lindsay Sorin of Littler Mendelson in Newark, N.J., represented Continental and United. Edward Trueblood in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Vera McCoy in Blackwood, N.J., represented Agbaniyaka.

Counsel for both parties did not immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.

The case is Agbaniyaka v. Cont’l Airlines, Inc., D.N.J., No. 2:14-7546, March 13, 2018.

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